In the annals of pop music history, there can be little doubt that very few artists have experienced career success (or career controversy) on the level of Madonna. Having consistently created hit albums for nearly 40 years, it is little wonder that the singer is still seen as a cultural icon across the globe four decades into her career. But in a music business that is notorious for phasing out flash-in-the-pan acts within the span of months, how has Madonna created such an amazing track record in the music industry?
1. Midwestern Roots
While we might think of global cultural capitals like New York City and Los Angeles when we hear Madonna’s music, the truth is that the maverick singer grew up with something of a humble background in the Midwestern United States. The grandchild of working class Italian immigrants, Madonna was a bright student who gained a scholarship to the prestigious University of Michigan.
In college, Madonna (then known as Madonna Ciconne) earned a reputation among friends and teachers as an ambitious performer with a penchant for seeking out the spotlight in any situation. She was also well-known among her circle of acquaintances for her hard work ethic. Her dedication to working hard is a trait that she hasn’t let atrophy; she is still known among record company executives and producers as one of the hardest working musicians in the industry.
2. Entering Show Business
From the start, Madonna seemed destined for fame, but hers was not an overnight success per se. Dropping out of college to pursue her dream of performing music and dancing, Madonna moved to New York City in the late-1970s. At the time, New York could be a very dangerous place, and Madonna often saw a darker side of life while struggling to earn a living as a clerk at Dunkin’ Donuts. (She was reputedly fired from the position after squirting a jelly donut at a rude customer.)
During this period of time, however, the singer’s knack for collaborating with gifted songwriters was clear from the outset; she often added her own personal lyrics to gorgeous melodies from up-and-coming musicians. Her first real band broke up after failing to hit their artistic stride, but Madonna’s ear for pop hooks and an outgoing demeanor eventually brought her attention from major music labels as a solo artist. The singer opted to sign with Sire Records in the early 1980s; her first album with the label brought her instant fame.
3. Artistic Success and Controversy
The 1980s would be the decade that saw Madonna become a musical sensation throughout the world. Her songs topped the charts, and the rise of MTV made Madonna into one of the world’s first music video stars. Her performances in music videos often pushed the limits of what was allowed for broadcast, and Middle America sometimes seemed frightened of her overtly confrontational performance style.
In fact, it is easy to forget in our more permissive age that Madonna’s ascension to the top of the charts was accompanied by an enormous amount of controversy; her performance of “Like a Virgin” (already a controversial single in and of itself) on the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards was so overtly sexual that she probably had network censors in a panic.
From her performance at the VMAs on, however, Madonna would continue to deftly incorporate scandal into her artistic repertoire again and again. Eight years later, in fact, the singer would ignite a firestorm of controversy among fans and non-fans alike with her book “Sex.” Featuring scandalous photographs of the singer and frank discussions of mature subject matter, “Sex” was published at a time when America’s censors were cracking down on artistic content that did not espouse “family values.” But this was hardly scandal for its own sake; for Madonna, the embracement of controversy is always tied to a form of rebellion.
As a book, “Sex” also showed that Madonna was not going to play down her controversial personality to win over new fans or flatter staunch traditionalists to sell a few more records. With time, Madonna’s liberal outlook on sexuality would even earn her kudos in feminist circles. But Madonna wasn’t only out to simply shock the masses: Her songs were genuinely well-written and wonderfully performed; indeed, as the last several decades have shown, Madonna’s most famous singles have remained in heavy rotation on radio stations across the globe. Moreover, Madonna was increasingly finding herself in-demand as an actress during this period.
4. Artistic Maturity
The decades that followed would see the singer trying out new styles and even adopting new personas. Like David Bowie, Madonna had the ability to completely change her look with each passing year. Never one to dwell on the past, the singer seemed determined throughout the 1990s to upend any preconceived notion of how a pop star should look or act. Reinvention was the name of the game, and Madonna was great at it.
Her marriage to director Guy Ritchie in 2000 and subsequent move to the United Kingdom barely slowed down her artistic progress, and over the last 20 years Madonna has attempted to outdo herself with every new album that she has released. Records like “Ray of Light” gained her a new generation of fans. For Madonna, settling down into a retiring life on the sidelines was clearly never an option. In the process, she changed the history of music.